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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iraqis returning to their homes in Baghdad face uncertainty, and for some danger. Many will find those homes occupied by others. The Iraqi government appears to have no real plan to deal with the problem. One spokesman is calling it a potential crisis.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has this report from Baghdad.

(Soundbite of crowd)

JAMIE TARABAY: A group of men and women crowd inside the halls of a government office in west Baghdad. They've been here all morning and they're agitated. Among them is Suad Mohammed, draped in a black abaya, one hand squeezing a tissue she uses to dab tears from her eyes.

Ms. SUAB MOHAMMED: (Through translator) We were kicked out of our home in Dora. They took my house and furniture.

TARABAY: Suad and her family, all Shiites, fled their home in the south Baghdad district of Dora after they were threatened by Sunni insurgents. She says the insurgent leader has already sold the house.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) He forged documents. He was one of Saddam's people. He threatened the judge, bribed people to have their papers drawn up.

TARABAY: Others standing nearby have similar stories. Some of their homes were burnt to the ground; others were given to people of a different sect.

In a country where so much has been lost, owning a home is often the only real asset Iraqis have left.

A woman who gives her name as Um Ali holds a bundle of papers under her arm. She and her family left the turbulent west Baghdad neighborhood of Saydia six months ago. And since then, she says, she's gone from one government office to another in a bid to legalize her claim to the house they left behind.

Ms. UM ALI: (Through translator) All the documents are finished. They checked everything. We came here to get them stamped. There's nothing left now but the manager's signature. We're begging him to finish our papers.

TARABAY: Twenty-nine-year-old Ali Hulmi Abdel Razak is in charge of this displacement office. He says he sees around 200 people a day.

Mr. ALI HULMI ABDEL RAZAK: (Through translator) We have many families going back to their houses. The person has to prove he was displaced. We send them to the main ministry office and they do the rest of the procedures over there.

TARABAY: The Iraqi government has given widely differing estimates of the number of refugees and internally displaced persons who have tried to return to their homes here.

Government spokesman Ali Dabbagh says Iraq has asked humanitarian organizations to help deal with the problem before it becomes a national crisis.

But in a telephone call, Jamal al Karbaly of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society said there's only so much his organization can do.

Mr. JAMAL AL KARBALY (Iraqi Red Crescent Society): (Through translator) We are emergency aid. We just give people tents to live in. Renting houses for these people, evicting squatters, this isn't our responsibility. This is between Iraqis and their government.

TARABAY: Ali Dabbagh says squatters face arrest if they refuse to leave the houses they've taken over when the original owners return. Iraqi security officials, however, say they've been ordered not to allow any more displaced people to return or to evict anyone because of the tensions it would ignite.

All that is of little comfort to Suad Mohammed as she paces back and forth in front of the displacement office in despair.

Ms. MOHAMMED: (Through translator) The man who sold my house sent people to kill my son - my only son. I want the government to give me back my house. I have no one else.

(Soundbite of weeping)

TARABAY: Suad says she hopes to be able to tell her story to Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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MONTAGNE: NPR's Haider al Jumaily contributed to that report.

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